A little over seven years ago, I opened a nature based preschool in Portland, where children spend half of every day outside, learning from the natural world. While I enjoy a good, long hike, I am not the rugged outdoor type. I have a general dislike of cold and rain. I have only been camping once – to a KOA with a pool, showers and breakfast service. And the only pets I have ever kept at home have been small enough to fit in aquariums – fish, frogs, lizards.Yet the decision to open an outdoor school was an easy one. The documented health and cognitive benefits to extended time in nature make prioritizing time outside for young children a necessity. The natural world easily lends itself to the type of hands-on learning that preschoolers do best. With Portland’s relatively mild climate and our location on the edges of Forest Park, opening a nature-based program was never in question.
More Time Outside Brings Health and Well-Being
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has tripled in the past generation, with 1 in every 5 school-aged child now considered obese. Scientists at the center believe that schools fill an important role in preventing obesity with a focus on physical activity and nutrition. In fact, a recent study of close to 3,000 children in Head Start programs across the country showed a strong correlation between the amount of time spent outside and a decrease in BMI. Access to nature has also been shown to decrease stress in both children and teachers, with some studies even showing a decrease in ADHD symptoms.
I experienced the effect of nature (or its deficit) on emotional stability earlier this year when we were forced indoors by smoke from the Eagle Creek wildfire. By the end of our third day entirely inside, everyone – including the teachers – was listless and quick to tears. With an outside rain or shine philosophy and student cooked snacks made from our school garden, I hope that we are helping children develop lifelong healthy habits.
Nature-Based Learning Fits with How Children Naturally Learn
In his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv points out that children learn through their senses – by seeing, touching, smelling, and listening. Young children learn best through hands-on, authentic experiences. Extended time outside allows children to discover, experiment, observe and learn from the real world.
When children are encouraged to explore the world around them and follow their own curiosity about it, motivation for learning is high. At Wildwood Nature School, we do not have a set curriculum, and each year’s journey is different. If the children notice lots of spider webs, we spend the fall on a unit about spiders. If the children have questions about where the animals go during the winter, we explore habitats, adaptations and migration.
Time Outdoors Creates Lifelong Nature Stewards
Children who spend time immersed in nature become children who want to protect nature. In their study, “Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism,” Nancy Wells and Kristi Lekies found that children who had many “wild” nature experiences, such as, hiking, camping and fishing, became adult stewards of the natural environment.
Scary stories about global warming and exhortations to “reduce, reuse and recycle” are less effective at creating global citizens than nurturing a love for and curiosity about animal and plant species. We spend time crunching leaves, watching spiders spin webs and helping plants grow. The wonder that enables 4 year olds to spend twenty minutes just watching a woolly caterpillar try to climb the sandbox wall, failing and trying again and again is the same force that will compel them as adults to want to preserve our planet.
Nature Supplies Never-Ending Materials
A parent asked me a little while back where I purchase my art materials. While I shop the usual sources – Lakeshore, Discount School Supply, Blick – the bulk of our materials are found. We make leaf prints and roll acorns in the fall. We use sticks, rocks and shells for sorting, measuring, counting and building. Our science is readily available in the change of seasons, the migration of animals and the life cycle of living thing. Natural found materials are less expensive than manmade purchased materials. The money saved using found materials is devoted to giving teachers a living wage and extra program benefits, like speakers for parent education nights and pajama story-time events.
When I started a nature-based preschool, I knew a lot about teaching young children, but not a lot about nature-based programs. I am now learning alongside the children, which keeps me energized as a teacher.
I will be popping into this blog once a month to share my journey with nature and children and to offer tips that can be used in any classroom, no matter how much outdoor space you have access to. I hope that my journey can be helpful to other early childhood educators. If you have a particular topic or question you would like to explore, please comment below or join the conversation on our Facebook page.
Ansari, Arya et al. Combating Obesity in Head Start: Outdoor Play and Change in Children’s BMI. Journal of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics. October 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4571181/
Childhood Obesity Facts, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, January 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/obesity/facts.htm
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. Algonquin Books, 2005.
Wells, Nancy and Kristi Lekies. Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult
Environmentalism,” [Children, Youth, and Environments, 16(1)] http://www.outdoorfoundation.org/pdf/NatureAndTheLifeCourse.pdf